Turning fifty, at last I come to understand,
belatedly, unexpectedly, and quite suddenly,
that poetry is not going to save anybody’s life,
least of all my own. Nonetheless I choose to believe
the journey is not a descent but a climb,
as when, in a forest of golden-green morning sunlight,
one sees another hiker on the trail, who calls out,
where are you bound, friend, to the valley or the mountaintop?
Many things—seaweed, pollen, attention—drift.
News of the universe’s origin infiltrates atom by atom
the oxygenated envelope of the atmosphere.
My sense of purpose vectors away on rash currents
like the buoys I find tossed on the beach after a storm,
cork bobbers torn from old crab traps.
And what befalls the woebegotten crabs,
caged and forgotten at the bottom of the sea?
Are the labors to which we are summoned by dreams
so different from the tasks to which the sunlight of reality
enslaves us? One tires of niceties. We sleep now
surrounded by books, books piled in heaps
by the bedside, stacked along the walls of the room.
Let dust accrue on their spines and colophons,
let their ragged towers rise and wobble.
Of course the Chinese poets were familiar with all this,
T’ao Ch’ien, Hsieh Ling-yün, Po Chü-i,
masterful sophisticates adopting common accents
for their nostalgic drinking songs and laments
to age and temple ruins, imperial avarice,
autumn leaves caught in a tumbling stream.
As the river flows at the urging of gravity, as a flower
blooms after April rain, we are implements
of the unseen, always working for someone else.
The boss is a tall woman in a sky-blue shirt
or a man with one thumb lost to a cross-cut saw
or science or art or the emperor, what matter?
We scrabble within the skin of time
like mice in the belly of a boa constrictor,
Jonah within leviathan, pacing the keel, rib to rib,
surrounded by the pulse of that enormous, compassionate heart.
Later we dance in orchards of guava and lychee nuts
to the shifting registers of distant music,
a clattering of plates as great fish are lifted from the grill,
seared black with bitter orange and lemongrass.
Orchid trees bloom here, Tulip trees and Flame trees,
but no Idea trees, no trees of Mercy,
for these are human capacities, human occasions.
Because it has about it something of the old village magic,
the crop made to rise by seed of words,
by spell or incantation—
because it frightens and humbles us to recall
our submission to such protocols—
for this do we fear poetry, for the unresolved darkness
of the past. Where are you bound, friend,
on this bright and fruitful morning—to the valley
or the mountaintop? To the mountaintop.
. . .